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Scientific hopefuls dive headfirst into challenge

posted 7 Aug 2008, 11:06 by Puneet Chhabra   [ updated 7 Aug 2008, 11:11 ]

Gizmos duel in underwater robotics bout

by Ronan Gray

August 06, 2008

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Virginia Chu of Georgia Tech, background, holds her team’s autonomous underwater vehicle in a test pool next to the site of the 2008 AUVSI competition in Point Loma while teammate Nate Tinkler communicates with the creation via his laptop computer. Tom Fenney of the Florida Institute of Technology holds his team’s autonomous underwater vehicle, “Subjugator,” during the 2008 AUVSI underwater vehicle competition in Point Loma on Aug. 1.

Over the past couple of weeks, San Diego has played host to two events that attract visitors from all over the nation and as far away as India and Japan because they are so unique.

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While attendance at the first event far outweighs the second one, both events attract a crowd that dream of boldly going where no one has gone before.

While the visitors to the now world famous Comic-Con festival may dream of exploring the unexplored, the attendees of the second, less famous event are actually making progress towards doing exactly that.

This past weekend, an estimated 250 college and high school students from the U.S., Canada, Japan and India gathered at a cold-war era Naval research facility on a small Point Loma bluff high above the Pacific Ocean. They were there to match wits and their autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) against one another in the “Underseas Eleven” competition.

The eleventh annual event was hosted by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Autonomous Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) organization at the San Diego Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center’s (SSC) historic TRANSDEC sonar test pool.

Two of the 26 teams that competed are based in San Diego. The San Diego City College team includes students from City College and San Diego State University (SDSU).

The second team, San Diego IBotics, was founded by some former members of the City College team and is now made up mostly of students from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), according to Jenny Wise, project manager for IBotics. Wise is a City College business major and the only woman on her 12-member team.

“I’m the mom,” she joked.

Wise, whose day job is as general manger of Hostelling International’s Point Loma Hostel on Udall Street, said the team is two years old and this is the first year that IBotics was expecting to pass the first qualifying round.

On Friday, the teams were working on their vehicles beneath white canopies along the eastern perimeter of the TRANSDEC basin while a group of judges made its way around the site to hear each team explain the technical details of their vehicle.

The facility itself looks like the set of a science-fiction movie. The central feature is a 200-foot-by-300-foot dark pool of 38-foot-deep water bisected by a huge bridge-like structure of steel girders.

There is a windsock along the western boundary and a small helicopter-landing zone just outside the fence to the south. The weeds pushing through the asphalt surface of the landing pad add to the sense of cold-war mystery and intrigue. The pool has been used as a test basin for sonar systems since it was constructed in 1964. The deep, clear water and sloping sides make it the ideal location for this unusual competition.

UCSD PhD students Gideon Prior and Nima Ghods were working on San Diego IBotics’ vehicle after the judges heard their presentation Friday. The small, stingray-shaped robot was a stark contrast to most of the other vehicles, which look like a haphazard collection of metal bars, housings, propellers and thrusters.

Several teams used simple waterproof cases about the same size and shape as a briefcase. The cases keep the electronic brains of their vehicles dry and provide a mounting surface for the thrusters that drive them through the water.

“That makes the design a lot quicker and they can get to some of the programming a lot earlier,” said Prior.

But Prior said the unusual shape of the IBotics vehicle is designed to mimic nature and increase hydrodynamic efficiency.

“It looks a lot cooler, too,” said Prior, adding that “cool points count at the end of the day.”

The main part of the competition is an underwater course of obstacles and tasks that the vehicles must navigate through within a certain time limit. However, points are also awarded based on the design and technical presentation of each team’s vehicle.

The idea of using unmanned, or autonomous vehicles for military and scientific applications is not a new one. In recent years, however, the concept of an unmanned aircraft patrolling the skies and actually engaging the enemy has transitioned from the realm of science fiction to the reality of the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The essential difference between aerial vehicles and submerged vehicles is that the radio waves used to communicate with the airborne vehicles do not transmit through water. So while an AUV is submerged, the operator cannot control its movement or receive live video signals and other data about its progress.

In the majority of cases, the underwater vehicle must be programmed to complete a series of tasks and make decisions based on the live data it receives from its sensors as the mission progresses.

The concept is not new, and for years researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) have used simple non-propelled AUVs that drift with ocean currents to study the major circulation in the oceans. The drifters are programmed to submerge and drift with the ocean current for periods of time, returning to the surface periodically to communicate position and scientific data back to the institution via satellite.

As the missions for AUVs grow in complexity, the need for new and innovative technologies increases. The AUV competition in Point Loma provides an opportunity for the Navy and the judges to meet and recruit new talent. The judges are mostly veterans of the highly specialized industry and many are potential employers of the young engineers and scientists in the competition. Representatives of Boeing and San Diego companies SeaBotix Inc., Remote Ocean Systems, Inc. and others — who are already engaged in the manufacture of underwater vehicles and components — were on hand to speak to students and exchange contact information.

The underwater portion of “Underseas Eleven” wrapped up Sunday, but a second, separate competition for autonomous surface vessels will begin this Thursday, Aug. 7 and run through Saturday, Aug. 9. It is open to the public most days between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and admission is free.

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Once a world leader, research shows that the U.S. is falling behind in the essential fields that drive technology forward. Interest, participation and achievement in math, science, engineering have fallen across the nation that once built great railroads, industry and put the first man on the moon.

The powerful distractions for young budding scientists are great and evident in the sell-out success of events like Comic-Con. At the AUVSI competition, however, at least a handful of young, elementary school-age children were observed making their way through the team exhibits.

On Sunday, with his teams chances of making the final gone, Nate Tinkler of Georgia Tech took the time to open up his team’s AUV and patiently answer a stream of simple but inquisitive questions from a San Diego second-grader. This week’s competition will provide another opportunity to inspire and encourage budding scientists and engineers at a historical and fascinating San Diego site that is rarely open to the public.

Scientific hopefuls dive headfirst into challenge

Gizmos duel in underwater robotics bout